Evaluating the NetGen Argument


Are the N-Geners different after all? Is the swift, social media enabled, coordination of mass protests in the “Arab spring” or the “London Riots” a sign of a rising “culture of cooperation”, inspired by the Internet?  In their book Wikinomics netoptimists Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams claim the Net- Generation, born after the invention of the internet, will bring about big changes in the world because they grew up with this new technology. Tapscott and Williams aren’t alone either. In his manifesto “We, The Web Kids”, Piotr Czerski whimsically claims he counted 12 new ‘generations’ in the press in the last ten years. But to me, the argument smells fishy. Tapscott and Williams aren’t N-geners. Are they hoping a new generation will bring about the change they wish to see in the world? On the other hand: if we call out new generations every year, perhaps we have our reasons. So let me try to give the netgen argument a second chance.

Tapscott and Williams support their utopian claims with two observations. First, the N-geners outnumber the current generation and second, they have adopted new cultural values because they grew up with a new technology. Tapscott and Wiliiams: “this is the first time in history where children are the sole authorities of something important”. These are in itself fair arguments, but they do hold for every generation since the second world war. Let’s take a look at one of those, the ‘Flower Power’ generation of the 1960ies. When the baby boomers reached adolescence, their numbers where daunting and they lived-in a different world than older generations. They had grown up in relative wealth; television gave them a window at the world at large; and they were the first generation with birth control technology at their disposal. A ‘love and peace’ revolution was the result. But the flower power ideals faded and they didn’t succeed in making the world they imagined for us. Compared with the ‘60ies love and peace tale, we live in a cold, rational, neoliberal, hypercapitalist world. Still, technology inspired or not, individualism, secularization and pop-culture are fruits of the 1960ies. The flower power generation did deliver, but not everything they promised.

The N-geners, in turn, have grown up in an unprecedented information wealth. These children of the baby boomers have social media and search, rather than just the mass media at their disposal, since their teens. In the eyes of Tapscott and Williams, N-geners have a different stance towards information. They are readers and writers, they search, scrutinize, authenticate, collaborate an organize information. N-geners don’t just handle information, they breathe information. If birth control “made” the 60ies; isn’t it this new information handling that makes the two-thousand-tens? Probably true, yes, but it is hard to pinpoint precisely what changed about the information landscape.  Mass media are no longer in control of what we see, but Google may be.  Internet may be a place for information scrutiny, but it is also a place where cognitive biases are amplified. Internet may be an external memory to the N-geners, but it may feed their paranoia too. Social media may allow a polyvocal dialog but the fierce competition in the attention economy allows for only a couple of winning ‘memes’. When you inspect any internet trend closely, you are bound to end in a paradox. Something changed, because of the internet, but the question what that something is – exactly, remains.

If information wealth is too difficult to make sense off: what about the availabilities of all these social tools, like social network sites and wiki’s? Doesn’t this make these kids really different? Net-optimists tend point to projects like Wikipedia and say: “Look they build an encyclopedia together! These N-geners are so great, they celebrate and cherish a culture of collaboration”.  But there is something wrong with the epistemology of the Wikipedia example. Wikipedia is surely evidence of mass collaboration on an unprecedented scale. It is also true that a fair amount of n-geners helped to build it: about 70% of contributors is under 30, most of them are college kids. But it this is no evidence for a cultural change.

The problem is the selection bias that you get when you focus on Wikipedia contributors (Wikipedians) only. Only 0.02% of Wikipedia users contribute actively to the site. So, Wikipedians are exceptional and it is reasonable to assume that they are different from most N-geners. They are not a ‘generation’ they are a ‘new elite’. According to research by Jacob Nielsen the figures are similar for other communities: usually less than 1% of the users is an active contributor. This also holds for social network sites like Facebook. So while the web seems full of thriving, active community sites, it does not follow that the net-generation as a whole has a more collaborative mindset. The credits for online participation shouldn’t go to the N-geners but to the technology. Wikipedia’s technology allows breaking down a complex writing task into small chunks that can be achieved by a scattered group of hardly connected people. Other internet companies manage to create a façade of massive online collaboration because they manage to collect content efficiently and because they reach such a wide audience; so that 1% active collaborators is enough. If there is evidence for a cultural change it must be found elsewhere. It may be, that online multiplayer games teach children collaborative skills. Possibly, social media act as a self-fulfilling prophecy: they educate the public into a collaborative mindset by placing a spotlight on the top collaborators. But to be honest, I have my doubts about the healing effect of this technology.

If the verdict is open about the information handling and collaboration culture, what about networking?  Aren’t the N-geners, who have 1000 Facebook friends, used to keep bigger networks and aren’t they trained solve problems in these networks? Wouldn’t this combination be a major change agent?  Well yes and no.  Malcolm Gladwell, may have represented both sides in a fair way in his controversial New Yorker piece: “Small Change; The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”. Gladwell argues social media played only a minor role for the uproars in Iran and Egypt. Joining such risk taking behavior, takes ‘strong ties’. You do not risk to be arrested or killed just for a good cause unless your  best friends do so as well; most Facebook friends, on the contrary, are not good enough for this type of couragious step. As social media are designed for maintaining weak ties, their role as a democratizing force may be overestimated. This conclusion made the piece controversial, but, be it with less emphasis, Gladwell also noticed the strength of those weak social media ties. Acquaintances are better than friends for gathering new ideas and information and preserving weak tie networks allows for quick diffusion of innovation and good marketplace matchmaking. Compared with the ‘strong tie’ hierarchical model, the ‘weak tie’ network model of operations is more flexible and open, but less robust. On Facebook you have more friends, but you cannot ask too much from them, or expect to reach them with every message. Gladwell: Social Media make “it easier for activist to express themselves and harder for that expression to have any impact”. But no network consists of only strong or only weak ties. Many of those 1000 Facebook friends are ‘weak’ ties, but some are strong ones.  If N-geners keep both weak and strong ties, their active network may be a better mix. This could be real asset N-geners bring to the workplace; or to public squares.

Smalltalk programmer Alan Kay has once defined technology as ‘everything which is invented after you were born’. When Piotr Czerski writes in his manifesto: “we do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it”, he speaks for a generation for whom the internet is not a technology. This makes a difference, but it is a mistake to act like the N-geners are the internet. Whatever we see happening on the web is a result of new people using new tools, it is important to try to keep the contributions of the people and the tools apart. Once you do this, you can demystify the netgen argument. Wikipedia shows that, when mass-collaboration takes place, it is not necessarily a sign of a more collaborative culture. Gladwell warns us for the opposite fallacy: pointing to the tools, when the people do the work. But this doesn’t mean there are no N-geners or that they don’t bring anything to the table. There are just less ngeners than  Tapscott and Williams think and they may be less ‘different’. There will be no landslide because a whole generation, with a radical new values, enters the job market, but, like in the 1960ies, there is a fairly small avant garde which can make a change by speaking up. If so, we really need to let the N-geners speak for themselves, rather than write about them in marketing books. Possibly they bring new values: a different attitude toward information, networks, intellectual property, which is important. Possibly they question the establishment. Possibly they bring about big changes, or small ones. But to do so, they, Piotr Czerski, and the likes, need to speak up in their own voice and express their own wishes for the world. And me? I was born about 5 years too early to be a netgenner, so I should end this post now, -too.

Reading More.

The manifesto “We, The Web Kids”, by N-gener, Piotr Czerski gives an inside account of netgeneration views, I guess. Most of the netgen arguments in this post, however, are taken from the book “Wikinomics” of which I wrote a review here.

In my posts ‘”Modeling the Connected Costumer” and “The Traveling Influence Problem” I discuss network substructures in some detail. In my post Turkles Turn, I argued that bigger individual networks do not necessarily mean a tighter social fabric. I discussed some of the ‘information wealth’ paradoxes in my posts: Collateral Damage of the Robots Race (on the Web), Cognitive Bias In The Global Information Subway and Thoughts About Googlization


2 Responses to “Evaluating the NetGen Argument”

  1. 1 On Playification « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  2. 2 Recipient Responsibility in Netiquette « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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